Directed by Tate Taylor, and created on a novel written by Kathryn Stockett, The Help (2011, [film] Directed by T. Taylor. Hollywood: DreamWorks Pictures), explores the themes of belonging through the lens of discrimination, including aspects of civil rights, race, gender, and class.
The social context in which we are born directly correlates to the sociocultural construction of what it means to belong. Belonging is defined as having ‘the right personal or social qualities to be a member of a particular group’ (Oxford English Dictionary, 2019). Belonging to a community/group may be out of our individual control. It may be chosen for us in terms of our family, race, or our gender. Our geographical location may determine our community and what groups we can belong to, just as our socioeconomic status and the communities to that we are exposed (Baumeister and Leary, 1995).
Set in the 1960s in the American state of Mississippi, the film depicts a shadowy incite into the lives of African American people. During this era, they were collectively and routinely faced with racial discrimination and prejudice. The film highlights the perspectives of African American maids, also known as The Help, and depicts their daily struggle for civil rights as they tend to the needs of the white middle class. Their shared experiences and hardships helped to form a sense of belonging with each other, yet they are disconnected from the rights of the wider society. According to research on the construction of belonging, the process of shared understanding contributes to the establishment of sociocultural norms, thus reinforcing a sense of shared belonging (Baumeister and Leary, 1995).
The film enriches our understanding of the human need to belong through the use of mise-en-scène, characterization, and cinematography. It displays the hardships that individuals or groups undergo, revealing the uncomfortable and negative aspects of society.
The director uses Mis-en-scène to effectively capture key symbols, which resonate with the political climate of the era and key themes in the film. These symbols include significant references to the Civil Rights movement, segregation, and gender representations. The Civil Rights movement took place from 1954 to 1968 (Scholastic.com, 2019). This political movement cast the hopes and desires of African American people to achieve equal rights to those of whites, including social, economic, and political entitlements (Scholastic.com, 2019).
This was made evident in one scene during the film when there is a civil rights protest/rally. In this scene, Aibeleen and an African American male are on their way home from work, traveling by bus. When the bus comes to a stop, the driver orders all colored people to get off but allows the white people to remain in their seats. On her way home, Aibeleen is shown to be distressed, running from the crowds of protestors and police officers (The Help, 2011). The director has chosen significant background music and noise and set the scene as dark and gloomy when highlighting the traumatic experiences of a civil rights rally.
The shared experience of participating in the rally is another example of how the African American people consolidated their sense of belonging as they participated, fought, and struggled collectively. The notion of segregation was reinforced through the use of Mis-en-scène. Footage of segregated buses for whites and colored fostered segregation and difference imposed by one’s race. Hence again forging connections through belonging to the segregated groupings.
The specific use of costumes for the segregated groups was most obvious throughout the film. The segregation did not occur in just social services, such as transport, but extended to distinct differences in clothing and makeup. The white women dress in elegant and femininely demanding fashion. Clothes bright and colorful, makeup graceful, and their hair neatly styled. Giving them a sense of belonging in a sociable manner. In contrast to this, the maids are dressed in monotone uniforms, with harsh hairstyles and limited personal expression, which further highlighted the prevalence of discrimination and questions people’s sense of belonging to wider society.
Through the effective use of characterization, we understand the themes in the film. The three main characters Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, Aibeleen Clark, and Minny Jackson all contribute greatly to these relevant themes. Skeeter, a young white woman aspires to become a professional journalist, which in this era was highly unusual for women, highlighting how she is dissimilar to her female friends. This is made evident in many ways. For example, Skeeter lives on a property outside of town away from many of the women whom she attends a social society group with. Skeeter is shown to be uncommon, as she is not interested in having a husband or family to care for, which was socially acceptable for women at this time. Instead, she is an independent and career-driven woman.
When she begins work at a newspaper company, Skeeter is motivated to write and publish her own book, through the point of view of the Help. With the help of two maids, Aibeleen and Minny, Skeeter records some of their stories and experiences of working for white families. In this era, both Skeeter and the maids would have been chastised because of their choices to meet together. Their decision to go against the dominant societal views of the roles black people played in a white society, propelled them to create yet another shared sense of belonging.
The director Tate Taylor uses cinematography to establish the themes and mood of the film. Elements of cinematography such as lighting, camera angles, and movement affect how we feel about the film, forming our beliefs (HEATHERMWALTER24, 2019). For example, in the film, there is a scene in which Skeeter is recalling a memory from her childhood where is struggling with social rejection and feeling as though she doesn’t belong. Her nanny Constantine tells her:
“Every day… every day you’re not dead in the ground and you wake up in the mornin’, you gonna have to make some decisions. Gotta ask yourself this question; am I gonna believe all them bad things them fools said about me today? Do you hear me? Am I gonna believe all them bad things they fools say about me today? Alright?” (The Help, 2011).
This statement evokes strong emotional feelings within the audience. In this scene, the camera shows a close-up of the two characters, clearly focusing on their facial expressions and communication with each other, when discussing how Skeeter is feeling isolated and as though she doesn’t belong.
Whilst set in the southern USA in the 1960s, ‘The Help’ gives us a deeper understanding of the effects of discrimination, whether this is based on race, gender, or class. The director uses mise-en-scène to highlight the context of the era, characterization, and cinematography, especially the use of camera angles, to highlight the themes and mood of the film, which are still relevant to today’s society. These significant features created a text that explores the theme of the human need to belong, united through their experiences of segregation, this group of people reinforced their interconnected belonging.